Real action and slow politics

2 April 2013

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We want real action, real policy action; real action on climate change, on border protection, on education. But the demand for action, the demand for real, leaves me a little confused.  Here’s why: I struggle to understand what it actually means and what role it plays in our current political climate.

A dictionary lends little help, separating only the meaning of one from the other.  I suspect there are some out there, who refuse to tumble into these semantic games.  Politics itself has little patience for it.

A simple search on the Australian Parliament’s website evidences a steady rise in the popularity of the phrase ‘real action’ in our political language since Federation: written and spoken only a handful of times in the period 1900-1960s, spiking in the 1970s-1980s (with 31 and 52 mentions in each respective decade) and exploding as a discursive phenomenon in the 1990s (109 mentions) to bring us into the era of real action debates in the 21st century. The use of ‘real action’ in the Parliamentary records more than doubled in the 2000s (320) and currently stands at 327.

To call for ‘real action’ or to justify the adoption of a course as ‘real action’ is an act of power – implying, somehow, that the status quo is illegitimate, insufficient or untruthful in some way.  During the notorious APEC 2007 protests in Australia, a group of activists shut down part of a Victorian power plant – ‘This is Real Action on Climate Change’ emblazoned across their t-shirts. Real action here became a question of exercising power immediately, rapidly – contracting cause and effect, means and ends.

Of course, this fails as a forensic examination of the matter, but nevertheless hints at the subtle evolution of our political mind, culture and language. It represents, perhaps, a shift in desire from symbolic politics to the practical. But what are the ramifications of this rhetorical insistence on real action? By conflating real action with real results, do we risk minimising the importance of time, persuasion and symbolism in politics?

In an already fast-paced, ‘brutal’ political culture, is the ‘real action now’ echo chamber unwillingly becoming a part of the problem, rather than a solution?

Consider this suggestion in light of the political non-event in Canberra two weeks ago. On a historic day that included a national forced adoption apology and the passing of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) legislation, the Labor leadership spill was heavily criticised for detracting from real policy issues. Instead of taking real action, says public sentiment, our government is far too occupied with governing itself.

The discourse of real action does little at times, to hold back this kind of fury. Instead, we have a government churning out policies and legislation – for example, the Carbon Tax, NDIS, and the most recent attempt to introduce a new regulatory framework for the Australian media – arguably without sufficient time for debate.  And yet the ‘circus’ politics does not cease. Political action and political drama play out concurrently. If the NDIS and Carbon Tax qualify as ‘real action’ on urgent issues, it is trite to say that what some people consider real action, is the wrong action in the view of others.

We cannot fault the value of citizens and organisations rising up to engage with politics and expose its flaws, nor underestimate the urgency, the passion felt for issues and ideas.  But where the rhetorical strategy of real action is so easily and selectively captured by every side of politics and so fluid in meaning, at the risk of inviting a flurry of invective for idealism, only a more conscious, or ‘slow politics’, can return to ‘real action’ the substance it has seemingly lost.

Alastair Sawday expressed this sentiment best in his book, Go Slow Italy (2009), where, in context of the slow food movement, he described the transition to slow food politics as “a bridge from panic to pleasure”; a transition from hype to consciousness.

The panic/pleasure axis is not only an apt metaphor for food – it resonates strongly with our contemporary political experience: a frenetic energy, anxious policies, and a mindset of perpetual emergency mires Canberra.  Here, the art and pleasure of politics is lost – dangerously indifferent to time, dialogue, authenticity, communication, persuasion and other civic virtues.

Slow does not mean we settle for governance that is sluggish, ineffective or pandering – rather it draws attention to the need for a more pleasurable, measured, reflexive, and timely politics. Without it, this repetitive longing for ‘real action’, as desperately as it tries to cut through the commotion, cannot displace this culture of panic and instead risks becoming part of it.


Sheenal Singh is a freelance journalist and law student at the University of Sydney. You can follow her on Twitter